by Kate Heyhoe
When I think of French sweets, words like profiteroles, eclairs, and the multi-layered Gateau l'Opera come to mind. Italy conjures up rich spoonfuls of tiramisu, Austria suggests elaborate Sachertorte, and Chinese desserts spark images of red-bean paste stuffed into bright white dumplings. But when I think of American desserts, I reflect mostly on plain, simple sweets made by homemakers, grandmas and kids. Nothing fancy— no elaborate concoctions, nothing an average cook couldn't make, or with ingredients the average family can't find.
Sure, this is a broad generalization, as the traditional American dessert repertoire must include some very complex recipes (though I can't think of any at the moment). But by and large, the desserts we as a nation enjoy most are ones that bring together family and friends, both in the easy baking and the easy eating.
Portable desserts in particular bring Americans together. The school or church bake-sale is the quintessential example. And a gift of a pound cake to a new neighbor or a peach cobbler at a Southern funeral also sends a bigger message that you care. The American dessert is a symbol of hospitality—made as much for giving and sharing as it is for eating.
The Sarah Lee company has made a fortune on frozen pound cakes, a testiment to the American devotion to this simple dessert. Outside the U.S., pound cake-type recipes appear in Britain, France and Germany, some lighter than others and with various flavorings added. But regardless of place, the origins of the recipe lie in its name: a pound or equal weight of each ingredient—butter, flour, sugar and eggs. Not all recipes adhere to this formula, but the variations all come close.
Another all-American dessert is anything made with peanut butter. Peanut butter cookies, peanut butter candies, and chocolate-covered peanut butter thingies. Modern Americans also seem to make more brownies, bars and cookies from scratch than old-fashioned cakes, pies, and pastries, perhaps because they're so easy to prepare (even without a mix) and can be readily eaten out of hand.
One dessert that's currently enjoying a revival is the Upside-Down Cake. Pineapple is the most familiar flavor of this 1950's all-American invention, but you can make it with any fruit, such as plums, apples, or as in the recipe below, cranberries.
Have a simply sweet summer...
Kate's Global Kitchen for July, 2000:
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This page created July 2000
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